On November 9th, 2003, Guatemalan
citizens voted in the fifth national elections since the reestablishment
of democracy in 1985. Voting in Guatemala is both a privilege and a
risk. The country has been embroiled in civil war for most of the last
half century, and mounting political violence has recently left thirty
political leaders and activists.
In addition, Efrain Rios Montt, former
military dictator, was running for office, raising serious questions
about the integrity of the electoral process. "Voters, candidates,
and those reporting on the elections could lose their lives simply for
exercising their right to vote or carrying out their professional
responsibilities," warned Amnesty International.
I learned of the situation in Guatemala
while traveling in southern Mexico. I soon crossed the border and joined
a national network of Guatemalan students and volunteers working as
human rights observers under The Center for Legal Action for Human
Rights (CALDH). We were to monitor the many political parties
participating in the elections, observe the voting process and denounce
human rights violations. In the weeks before the
elections, I traveled across the highland province of Quetzaltenango
with CALDH regional coordinator, Gabriela Munez training other
volunteers from indigenous villages.
On election day, I arose at 4:30 and
dressed quickly, pulling over my jacket an observer vest emblazoned with
a huge Egyptian hieroglyphic eye. Beneath it was written Somos
tus Ojos Guatemala - We are your eyes Guatemala. I hurried down
quiet cobblestone streets to meet Gabby. Though we'd mostly traveled the
countryside in brilliantly colored 1950's US bluebird school buses that
looked like pieces of functional art, that day we took Gabby's father's
1982 Corolla for a 30 mile drive over a mountain pass to Angahuana, an
agricultural community nestled in fertile valley. We talked about our
fears and hopes for this important moment in Guatemalan history.
"I got another phone call last
night," said Gabby, after a moment of silence.
For the past several weeks anonymous
callers had threatened her to keep her mouth shut and stay away from
politics. She was determined to do exactly the opposite. It wasn't so
bad in Quetzaltenango, but in the rural provinces, civil war
paramilitaries maintained a strong influence. In the past weeks,
remobilized paramilitaries had kidnapped reporters, blockaded roads, and
threatened violence if Rios Montt and his political party, the
Guatemalan republican Front (FRG) lost the elections.
When we reached Angahuana, villagers in
their Sunday best were already gathered in the voting center in the
agricultural market. We gave volunteer credentials to local observers,
having had to forge them the night before because we had not received
enough. During an earlier visit these indigenous volunteers had told how
several town council meetings had been stopped after sympathizers of
rival political parties had come to blows. Once, a local official shot
an opposing party member in the ankle during a political rally, but was
not charged because he was of the same party as the local police.
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